Truth was one of the 10 or 12 children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree (or Bomefree). Colonel Hardenbergh bought James and Elizabeth Baumfree from slave traders and kept their family at his estate in a big hilly area called by the Dutch name Swartekill (just north of present-day Rifton), in the town of Esopus, New York, 95 miles (153 km) north of New York City.
Charles Hardenbergh died in 1806.
Nine-year-old Truth (known as Belle), was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100 to John Neely, near Kingston, New York. Until that time, Truth spoke only Dutch. She later described Neely as cruel and harsh, relating how he beat her daily and once even with a bundle of rods.
In 1808 Neely sold her for $105 to tavern keeper Martinus Schryver of Port Ewen, New York, who owned her for 18 months.
Schryver then sold Truth in 1810 to John Dumont of West Park, New York.
Although this fourth owner was kindly disposed toward her, considerable tension existed between Truth and Dumont's wife, Elizabeth Waring Dumont, who harassed her and made her life more difficult.
Around 1815, Truth met and fell in love with an enslaved man named Robert from a neighboring farm. Robert's owner (Charles Catton, Jr., a landscape painter) forbade their relationship; he did not want the people he enslaved to have children with people he was not enslaving, because he would not own the children. One day Robert sneaked over to see Truth. When Catton and his son found him, they savagely beat Robert until Dumont finally intervened. Truth never saw Robert again after that day and he died a few years later.
Late in 1826, Truth escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia. She had to leave her other children behind because they were not legally freed in the emancipation order until they had served as bound servants into their twenties. She later said "I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right."
She found her way to the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen in New Paltz, who took her and her baby in. Isaac offered to buy her services for the remainder of the year (until the state's emancipation took effect), which Dumont accepted for $20. She lived there until the New York State Emancipation Act was approved a year later.
In 1799, the State of New York began to legislate the abolition of slavery, although the process of emancipating those people enslaved in New York was not complete until July 4, 1827. Dumont had promised to grant Truth her freedom a year before the state emancipation, "if she would do well and be faithful." However, he changed his mind, claiming a hand injury had made her less productive. She was infuriated but continued working, spinning 100 pounds of wool, to satisfy her sense of obligation to him.
Truth learned that her son Peter, then five years old, had been sold illegally by Dumont to an owner in Alabama. With the help of the Van Wagenens, she took the issue to court and in 1828, after months of legal proceedings, she got back her son, who had been abused by those who were enslaving him. Truth became one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win the case.
Truth had a life-changing religious experience during her stay with the Van Wagenens and became a devout Christian. In 1829 she moved with her son Peter to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, a Christian Evangelist. While in New York, she befriended Mary Simpson, a grocer on John Street who claimed she had once been enslaved by George Washington. They shared an interest in charity for the poor and became intimate friends.
In 1832, Sojourner Truth met Robert Matthews, also known as Prophet Matthias, and went to work for him as a housekeeper at the Matthias Kingdom communal colony.
In 1839, Truth's son Peter took a job on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket.
From 1840 to 1841, she received three letters from him, though in his third letter he told her he had sent five. Peter said he also never received any of her letters. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board and Truth never heard from him again.
In 1840s, Boston, Massachusetts: William Lloyd Garrison invited Sojourner Truth to give a speech at an annual antislavery convention. Wendell Phillips was supposed to speak after her, which made her nervous since he was known as such a good orator. So Truth sang a song, "I am Pleading for My people," which was her own original composition sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.
At that time, Truth began attending Millerite Adventist camp meetings. Millerites followed the teachings of William Miller of New York, who preached that Jesus would appear in 1843-1844, bringing about the end of the world. Many in the Millerite community greatly appreciated Truth's preaching and singing, and she drew large crowds when she spoke.
The year 1843 was a turning point for Baumfree. She became a Methodist, and on June 1, Pentecost Sunday, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She chose the name because she heard the Spirit of God calling on her to preach the truth. She told her friends: "The Spirit calls me, and I must go," and left to make her way traveling and preaching about the abolition of slavery.
In 1844, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Florence, Massachusetts. Founded by abolitionists, the organization supported women's rights and religious tolerance as well as pacifism. There were, in its four-and-a-half year history, a total of 240 members, though no more than 120 at any one time. They lived on 470 acres (1.9 km2), raising livestock, running a sawmill, a gristmill, and a silk factory. Truth lived and worked in the community and oversaw the laundry, supervising both men and women. While there, Truth met William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles. Encouraged by the community, Truth delivered her first anti-slavery speech that year.
In 1844, Northampton, Massachusetts: At a camp meeting where she was participating as an itinerant preacher, a band of "wild young men" disrupted the camp meeting, refused to leave, and threatened to burn down the tents. Truth caught the sense of fear pervading the worshipers and hid behind a trunk in her tent, thinking that since she was the only black person present, the mob would attack her first. However, she reasoned with herself and resolved to do something: as the noise of the mob increased and a female preacher was "trembling on the preachers' stand," Truth went to a small hill and began to sing "in her most fervid manner, with all the strength of her most powerful voice, the hymn on the resurrection of Christ." Her song, "It was Early in the Morning," gathered the rioters to her and quieted them. They urged her to sing, preach, and pray for their entertainment. After singing songs and preaching for about an hour, Truth bargained with them to leave after one final song. The mob agreed and left the camp meeting.
In 1846, the group disbanded, unable to support itself. In 1845, she joined the household of George Benson, the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. In 1849, she visited John Dumont before he moved west.
Truth started dictating her memoirs to her friend Olive Gilbert and in 1850 William Lloyd Garrison privately published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave.
Sojourner Truth purchased a home in Florence for $300 and spoke at the first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1854, with proceeds from sales of the narrative and cartes-de-visite captioned, "I sell the shadow to support the substance", she paid off the mortgage held by her friend from the community, Samuel L. Hill.
In 1851, Truth joined George Thompson, an abolitionist and speaker, on a lecture tour through central and western New York State. In May, she attended the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, where she delivered her famous extemporaneous speech on women's rights, later known as "Ain't I a Woman?".
On September 7, 1853: At the convention, young men greeted her with "a perfect storm," hissing and groaning. In response, Truth said, "You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can't stop us, neither". Sojourner, like other public speakers, often adapted her speeches to how the audience was responding to her. In her speech, Sojourner speaks out for women's rights. She incorporates religious references in her speech, particularly the story of Esther. She then goes on to say that, just as women in scripture, women today are fighting for their rights. Moreover, Sojourner scolds the crowd for all their hissing and rude behavior, reminding them that God says to "Honor thy father and thy mother.
In 1856, Truth bought a neighboring lot in Northampton, but she did not keep the new property for long.
On September 3, 1857, she sold all her possessions, new and old, to Daniel Ives and moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she rejoined former members of the Millerite movement who had formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Antislavery movements had begun early in Michigan and Ohio.
In 1864, Truth was employed by the National Freedman's Relief Association in Washington, D.C., where she worked diligently to improve conditions for African-Americans. In October of that year, she met President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1865, while working at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington D.C., Truth rode in the streetcars to help force their desegregation.
From 1857 to 1867 Truth lived in the village of Harmonia, Michigan, a Spiritualist utopia. She then moved into nearby Battle Creek, Michigan, living at her home on 38 College St. until her death in 1883.
In Boston, 1871: In a brief speech, Truth argued that women's rights were essential, not only to their own well-being, but "for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them."
Several days before Sojourner Truth died, a reporter came from the Grand Rapids Eagle to interview her. "Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk." Truth died at her Battle Creek home on November 26, 1883.
On November 28 her funeral was held at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church officiated by its pastor, the Reverend Reed Stuart. Some of the prominent citizens of Battle Creek acted as pall-bearers. Truth was buried in the city's Oak Hill Cemetery.
On September 19, 2018, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the name of the last ship of a six unit construction contract as USNS Sojourner Truth (T-AO 210).